An amusing and slightly alarming Scrabble-freak portrait, Word Wars serves as a cautionary sequel to last year’s Spellbound. What happens to those adorable spelling-bee kids after untold hours of vocab-boosting mnemonic drudgery—poring over dictionaries, shuffling flash cards, rotely learning words they can’t pronounce and don’t understand? Eric Chaikin and Julian Petrillo’s modest documentary proposes a less cute adult corollary: the not terribly lucrative or glamorous world of tournament Scrabble, where the socially maladroit enact triple-word-score smackdowns in a series of depressing hotel conference rooms (often in convenient proximity to casinos) and most of the cash prizes are barely sufficient to recoup the expense of attendance.
Despite sharing a word-drunk effervescence and competition-countdown structure with Spellbound, Word Wars more often recalls another recent doc, Cinemania, which profiled five fanatical New York movie buffs. Chaikin and Petrillo follow four contenders in the prelude to the 2002 national championships in San Diego, and this sampling of Scrabble pros suggests that most are chronically dyspeptic and underemployed. Matt Graham, a stand-up comic with perennial money problems, has a weakness for herbal brain-boosters (picolinate, he tangentially notes, is an anagram for antipolice—accepted by The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary). Marlon Hill, a dreadlocked stoner who calls himself a “pre-Mecca Malcolm,” resents his own expertise at a game that perpetuates the tyranny of the white man’s language. Joel Sherman, who runs a Scrabble chapter in midtown Manhattan, has a disturbing tendency to overshare about his acid-reflux woes (hence his nickname, G.I. Joel—as in gastrointestinal). And Joe Edley, the eerily serene defending champ, psychs out rivals with his glassy stare and swears by a regimen of tai chi and acupuncture. (“That Zen shit’s got to help,” Marlon notes.)
The filmmakers briefly ponder the dearth of female competitors, interview Washington Square Park amateurs, acknowledge the “offensive word” controversy, and trail Marlon to a Tijuana brothel, but Word Wars spends a surprising amount of time actually watching the game (Rack Focus would have been a more fitting title). We witness plenty of seven-tile bingos and sneaky hook-ons, and even an unchallenged phony word (bemeant, courtesy of Matt), but even the fast-motion effects and flashy graphics can’t make this a spectator sport. The real drama arises, naturally, from a moment of abject failure—one of the contestants storming off the premises when confronted with the Scrabble nut’s ultimate nightmare: the all-vowel rack.